GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Nearly three years after a band of renegade congressmen brought the tea party insurgency to Washington, there are early rumblings of a political backlash in some of their districts.
Here in the Dutch Reformed country of West Michigan, long a bastion of mainstream, mannerly conservatism, voters in 2010 handed the House seat once held by Gerald R. Ford to Justin Amash, a 33-year-old revolutionary and heir to the libertarian mantle of former congressman Ron Paul (R-Tex.). Amash was part of an attempted coup against House Speaker John A. Boehner (R- Ohio) and is a leader of the House tea party faction that helped force a government shutdown last week.
But within Grand Rapids’ powerful business establishment, patience is running low with Amash’s ideological agenda and tactics. Some business leaders are recruiting a Republican primary challenger who they hope will serve the old-fashioned way — by working the inside game and playing nice to gain influence and solve problems for the district. They are tired of tea party governance, as exemplified by the budget fight that led to the shutdown and threatens a first-ever U.S. credit default.
Similar efforts are underway in at least three other districts — one in the moneyed Detroit suburbs and the others in North Carolina and Tennessee — where business leaders are backing primary campaigns against Republican congressmen who have alienated party leaders. The races mark a notable shift in a party in which most primary challenges in recent years have come from the right.
“It’s a new dynamic, and we don’t know how far it’s going to go,” said Vin Weber, a former GOP congressman who is close to the House leadership. “All the energy in the Republican Party the last few years has come from the tea party. The notion that there might be some energy from the radical center, the people whose positions in the conservative mainstream are more center-right but who are just furious about the dysfunctionality of government — that’s different.”
But any move to take out a tea-party-aligned congressman in a Republican primary would be challenging, especially here in Michigan’s 3rd District, where grass-roots conservatives hold considerable sway. In the 2012 presidential primary, former senator Rick Santorum beat the eventual Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, in this culturally conservative district, even though Romney carried the state.
Some prominent business leaders are lining up behind investment manager Brian Ellis, according to several GOP operatives here. Ellis declined to grant an interview but wrote in an e-mail: “I am taking a hard look at running in the Republican primary” and “will make up my mind in the near future.”
State Sen. Mark C. Jansen, seen as a pragmatic Republican, also is weighing a challenge to Amash, said Deb Drick, his chief of staff. “We get frequent calls from people encouraging Senator Jansen to run,” Drick said. “There’s got to be a reason he’s being approached so much.”
Meg Goebel, president of the Paul Goebel Group, an insurance agency, said she is “really, really unhappy” with the leading role Amash has played in tying the health-care law to overall government funding.
“I don’t see him as a collaborator, and I think that’s a huge problem,” Goebel, a former chair of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce, said. “People used to say, ‘I don’t like the Congress, but I like my congressman.’ I don’t think that’s the case anymore.”
There are similar sentiments 140 miles east in the tony Detroit suburbs of Oakland County, where businessman David Trott is waging a well-funded primary campaign to defeat Rep. Kerry Bentivolio (R), a former high school teacher and reindeer rancher now dubbed by fellow Republicans the “accidental congressman.”
After longtime Rep. Thaddeus McCotter’s reelection bid collapsed in 2012, Bentivolio was the only Republican on the ballot — and, in the GOP-leaning 11th District, he won.
Although Bentivolio aligns with tea party conservatives, he has not been as much of a thorn in the side of House leadership as Amash has; Boehner hosted a fundraiser for Bentivolio in the summer. But Bentivolio is struggling to prepare for reelection and has just $42,000 in cash on hand, according to campaign finance records. His spokesman did not respond to several requests for comment.
Trott, a longtime party donor and fixture, announced last week that he had raised $425,000 in the 26 days since launching his campaign. But Trott’s campaign is sensitive to any suggestion that he represents the establishment taking on the tea party. “This is not some establishment creation,” said Stu Sandler, Trott’s general consultant.
In Tennessee, tea-party-aligned Rep. Scott DesJarlais faces a GOP primary challenge from state Sen. Jim Tracy, who has won over donors and other supporters who abandoned DesJarlais after a series of personal scandals. In DesJarlais’s divorce records, released too late in the 2012 campaign to impact the result, the congressman revealed that he had multiple affairs with co-workers and patients while he was chief of staff at a hospital and that he counseled a mistress and his wife to get abortions.
In coastal North Carolina, Taylor Griffin, a former aide to George W. Bush who has backing from the Washington establishment, launched a primary challenge last week against Rep. Walter B. Jones, an outspoken iconoclast who has repeatedly antagonized Boehner.
Former Ohio congressman Steven C. LaTourette, who runs the Main Street Partnership, a group that helps promote moderate Republicans, said there is no coordinated effort to mount primary challenges to tea party allies.
“It’s people popping up organically in these districts,” LaTourette said. “The traditional governing wing of the Republican Party is fed up with this dysfunction, this ‘no’ to everything, this refusal to engage the other side to find solutions.”
Here in Amash’s Grand Rapids district, several well-known executives who are said to have promised their support to Ellis did not respond to requests for interviews. But Katie Packer Gage, a former senior aide to Romney and a Michigan GOP operative, said, “The business community in Grand Rapids has been completely disenchanted with Amash.”
LaTourette said some Wall Street donors called him after reading reports of a possible primary challenge to Amash and said they were “ready to go.” LaTourette noted that, before Amash, the district was represented by moderate Republican Vernon J. Ehlers, a former nuclear physicist. “It’s not bad ground for the center-right of the party, the governing wing of the party, to stake out its claim,” he said.
But the business establishment here is hardly united against Amash. One of the biggest names in this city, Douglas L. DeVos, president of Amway and son of the multinational corporation’s founder, is actively supporting the congressman’s reelection.
DeVos recently wrote a letter to Michigan business leaders urging them to give the maximum $5,200 to Amash right away. The donations, DeVos wrote, would help Amash avoid an “unnecessary and expensive challenge.” In the most recent filing, Amash had just $164,000 in his campaign account.
“I know all the power brokers here in town, and some people might consider me one,” said Dave Mehney, an Amash supporter and chief executive of Skytron, a medical equipment manufacturer. “They can put all the money they want into it and find somebody to run, but they won’t beat Justin because he’s got the grass roots.”
In 2012, Amash faced no primary opponent and won the general election 53 percent to 44 percent. His spokesman, Will Adams, said that Amash is regarded as “a principled conservative who gets things done” and that his high-profile stance this summer against the National Security Administration’s surveillance programs has been especially popular.
“We’re not worried,” Adams said.
Amash declined an interview request. “Because I do not fit neatly in the Republican box, some establishment Republicans and pundits think I am extreme,” Amash told Washington Post columnist George Will this year. But, he added, “I am moderate,” because “the point of the Constitution is to moderate the government.”
DeVos, who is neighbors with Amash’s parents and has known the congressman since his childhood, said in an interview that he is “developing very strongly.”
“You’ve always got to stand on principles,” DeVos said. “Without that, how can you ever negotiate or talk to people about anything?”